Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all emerged from the same roots, bringing into the world a hierarchical concept of reincarnation that has been absorbed somewhat into New Age thinking. We know the ancient Celts believed something along the lines of reincarnation but we don’t have much detail. It’s easy, and therefore tempting, to import the ideas of other cultures to fill in the gaps.
While I like the idea of reincarnation (matter, after all, gets reused, why not spirit?) I don’t like all of the baggage. Far too many New Age folk are willing to accept superficial wealth and material success as proof of good karma and blame misfortune on bad karma, even going as far as to suggest disability is a consequence of bad karma. That’s hideous, illogical and a way of abdicating responsibility. Why would material wealth be a reflection of your spiritual condition anyway? If we think about the majority of spiritual teachings, there are plenty of reasons to argue that poverty is a spiritual advantage (easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and all that). Material wealth, in every seriously spiritual context, is a trap and a distraction from real life. The only people who seem to advocate it as a spiritual good, also seem more interested in material wealth than anything else and I’m prepared to bet that’s not a coincidence.
Another problem I have with this system of reincarnation is that it suggests something or someone is keeping score for all of us, to decide who to punish and who to reward, and that starts to sound like all the things I dislike in monotheism. I’ve been reading about Jainism this week, and they understand karma as a substance that attaches itself to your soul and by its presence, dictates what you are capable of doing. Good karma gives you auspicious opportunities to grow and develop, bad karma can ultimately reduce you to being a hell-bound type creature, but what you suffer is precisely the hell you have created. There’s something very pleasing about that idea, I think.
Then there’s this whole business of what constitutes a ‘better’ incarnation. The widespread understanding is that being a human represents a pinnacle in earthly achievement and from human state you can ascend to something even better. I can’t help but feel this opinion has everything to do with us, as a species, thinking rather too well of ourselves. As a Druid, it doesn’t chime with me at all. Everything has spirit. Why should our manifestation be considered ‘superior’?
Consider the number of other creatures who clearly devote a lot of time to quiet contemplation. By the looks of it, my cat meditates far more than I do. Dolphins strike a lot of people as being very spiritual creatures. How about elephants? Wouldn’t it be progress to reincarnate as an elephant? Although this rather assumes the existence of progress or that one form is better than another, and really we have no idea.
With the Druid hat pulled down firmly over my ears last night, I came to a conclusion. A longer lived entity has more lifetime over which to develop spiritually. All Eastern reincarnation traditions seem to have aspects of renouncing the world, becoming still, quiet, sometimes inactive as the last step before transcending. This does not sound like people to me. This sounds like trees. Then I went on to think about the spirits of mountains, and other very old things that have had time to become, and are no doubt still becoming. You’d need a lot of human incarnations to keep up with that.
I’m not that convinced by the idea of reincarnating into some higher, unearthly state of being any time soon. I’m not so troubled by the woes and wonders of this world that I feel a need to transcend them. I’m interested in learning how to do as good a job as I can at being alive. That may mean I am simply a very long way from being able to transcend, but that doesn’t trouble me much either. Give me a few thousand more runs round the wheel and maybe I will know differently. In the meantime, I rather like the idea of coming back as a tree.